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Winning at Weizmann
A talk with Daniel Zajfman, who is concluding 12 years at the helm of the Weizmann Institute. Its youngest-ever president, he has elevated both its budget and prestige to new heights.
THE ART of science: Daniel Zajfman. (photo credit: NIR KEIDAR)

At the tender age of 20, Daniel Zajfman decided to make aliyah on his own. Just 15 years later, he’d been offered professorships at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s two premiere institutions for scientific research.

At the end of this year, Zajfman will conclude his successful term as president of Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute. For over 12 years, Zajfman has stood at the helm of the institution that has been a symbol of Israel’s excellence throughout the generations. He’s the youngest president in the Institute’s history – and probably one of the most brilliant, too. During his tenure, he doubled Weizmann’s budget, and the Institute has been able to establish its position as one of the top science research institutions in the world. Despite all this, Zajfman is modest, practical, focused and optimistic. Yes, extremely optimistic.

The Israeli educational system has been denigrated by almost everyone. Do you share this opinion?

In the modern age, schools are no longer intended to impart knowledge to students but rather to instill in them a desire to learn. Kids can acquire all the information they need from the Internet. The question is how to create an environment that inspires children to learn. What’s the atmosphere in the classroom and the school, and our teachers’ attitudes? These are critical. In Singapore, they believe that if you hire quality teachers and have orderly classrooms, then children will want to learn. Here in Israel, we have a different philosophy.

Singapore is a model of success. What’s wrong with their thinking?

Whenever I travel to Singapore, I’m bombarded with questions about Israel’s secret to success. They look up to us with such admiration. Granted, schoolchildren in Singapore score much higher than Israelis on PISA tests and in other indices as well, but we have a remarkable hi-tech industry and Singapore doesn’t. In Singapore’s educational system, students are asked the same questions they’ve been asked for a hundred years and are only required to solve equations that have already been solved. In Israel’s educational system, on the other hand, students learn in an atmosphere that is on the verge of chaos. This environment, however, stimulates curiosity and freedom of thought. This might be overkill, but the end results are still positive.

So what you’re saying is that the Israeli educational system is better than that of Singapore?

Israeli schoolchildren have very little respect for their teachers. If you enter a classroom in Singapore, you’ll see all the students sitting quietly and properly. After a lecture I gave once, I asked if anyone had any questions. Not one student did. Here, the students are challenging you even before you’ve finished because they think they’re smarter than you are. Regarding the acquisition of knowledge, I think our style is better. It’s so important to let children know that they’re capable, that they can always ask questions and it’s okay to think independently. The specific information they can get anywhere. A teacher’s job is to stimulate the kids to want to expand their horizons, and therein lies Israel’s success. Our kids are daring – they ask questions and want to make a difference.

What did you do for your IDF service?

I taught physics classes to pilots.

From what age were you interested in physics?

From a very young age. All my dreams involved physics. My father was an electrical engineer and I was allowed to play with all his gadgets from the age of six. I knew how to connect resistors and transistors before I even learned how to read. He would tell me that I can do whatever I want in his workshop as long as I didn’t burn it down. It was like a giant playground for me. I got electrocuted at least three times. I’ll never forget the first time I held a radio transistor in my hands.

It sounds like that was a formative event from your childhood.

Yes, it was. The first time I held that radio in my hands, I thought my brain was going to explode. I was 13 and I absolutely had to understand how it worked, how someone was talking into a microphone in a studio somewhere and I was hearing her voice here in my house. So I went to the library and began reading books, but I didn’t understand anything I read. It was so frustrating.

That’s when I understood that if I wanted to learn how a transistor radio works, I needed to study physics. I’ll never forget the day, in my second year at the Technion, when I discovered Maxwell’s Equations, which explain how electromagnetic waves propagate. Suddenly, I just got it, and this incredible sense of euphoria came over me. It had taken me 10 years, but I finally knew how to explain the process. Physics gives you a feeling, as if you can understand every natural phenomenon in the world. No longer do you look up into the sky and feel like everything is unknown.”

You grew up in Belgium. How did you become a Zionist?

From Hashomer Hatzair. I was a member of the youth movement in Brussels and later, I volunteered to be one of the youth leaders (rosh ken). I visited Israel three times. I spent time on kibbutz and fell in love with life here. Everything I am today is due to my experiences in Hashomer Hatzair. During my formative years, I gained immense cultural experience, and learned important leadership skills and values. Of course, Zionism was also a huge part of our youth group. I’ll never forget my first time visiting Israel. I suddenly understood that there was something special here that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and that a person’s chronological age has absolutely no significance whatsoever.

THE WEIZMANN Institute is ‘one of the best’ at finding smart, curious researchers and providing them with infrastructure, time and total freedom, notes Zajfman. (Credit: WEIZMANN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE)

What do you mean?

In other societies, age is a very important factor in how you progress professionally. This is different in Israel, since our kids are trained to use weapons and are given tremendous responsibility when they’re just 18. I’d always believed that young people are the beating heart of any nation, and then I came to Israel and saw that young people were given such important positions. Israel – and not the United States – is the true land of opportunity.

Zajfman is known as a strong proponent of the approach that believes that scientific research is best carried out in a bubble, without having to adapt itself to market viability.

“Historically, most important inventions were not generated by people who were trying to solve problems,” he explained. “This has been documented. Take X-rays, for example. No one ever dreamed 150 years ago that there could be rays that could penetrate a person’s body and then stop when it reaches bones, that it could take a picture of our bones. There was no project aimed at discovering X-rays, because no one could ever have imagined it being possible.

“What happened is one day, a German doctor named Wilhelm Roentgen – who was a curious person – wanted to understand how electrons move from one place to another, a subject that is extremely boring for most people. Roentgen had covered a tube of light with black cardboard. And yet, on the wall, he saw a glimmer of light. His discovery was lucky, but he was also extremely talented. Many people had done the same exact experiment before him, but no one else had looked to the side. You need to be curious and open minded if you want to make discoveries.

“Take Waze, for example. The only reason we have GPS is because Einstein figured out the theory of relativity. Otherwise, there’d be no Waze.”

WHAT MAKES a good scientist? ‘They must keep digging, and never stop questioning.’ (Credit: WEIZMANN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE)

Isn’t it a little arbitrary to carry out research just because you’re curious about something? Is it possible to run an institution like the Weizmann Institute based on such a philosophy?

We don’t have a choice. Scientists’ curiosity should never be curbed. That’s the only way discoveries that were never meant to be uncovered will be made. Let’s go back 200 years ago in England, for example. The main source of light was candles. And so, the candle industry was huge and there was lots of research being done to come up with new ideas for candle colors and aromas, and candles that burned longer.

Then one day, someone invented electricity. It didn’t matter how hard people were working to create more advanced candles – they never would have discovered something that could compete with electricity. The only way you can come up with new inventions is by taking smart, curious people who are willing to put in the hard work of research. You need to provide them with infrastructure, give them time and offer them total freedom. In the end, they’ll discover something no one ever expected. The Weizmann Institute is one of the best places for this. Our job is to find the most curious and passionate people and then support them to the end.

In 2011, you gave an interview in which you said that you allocate $80 million for research in personalized medicine. Has this been a worthwhile investment?

The field that has experienced the most dramatic changes in the last 20 years is Biology. Unlike in the past, nowadays, we have the ability to explain the complexities and reasons why one person’s body is different from another’s. In the past, you would go to the doctor and get diagnosed with the flu. We now know that there isn’t just one type of flu, but many – and they’re not even related to each other. The same with cancer. Someone might have one kind of liver cancer that is completely different from another person’s liver cancer.
In the past, medicine used to be given depending on a specific sickness. Nowadays, each patient is given a medicine that has been adapted especially for them – this is nothing less than revolutionary. Advances in cancer research have been phenomenal. Doctors used to classify cancer by organ – lungs, liver, breast and pancreas. But that’s changed now, and it’s as if it’s a different disease. Each patient receives personalized treatment for their particular cancer. Research has given doctors the tools to make much more specific diagnoses and tweak treatments accordingly.

So, are we getting closer to finding a cure for cancer?

Define cure. People with cancer are already living much longer. One of the difficulties with diagnosing cancer is that it doesn’t cause pain at first, which makes it so hard to catch early on. If a cancer is discovered early enough, it can be managed, kind of like diabetes, and many people have reached full remission through the use of immunotherapy.

What makes a good scientist?

They must always be asking questions. And when they receive an answer, they must then look for what’s erroneous and where we went wrong. They must keep digging, and never stop questioning. I think this is a very Jewish trait – this disrespect for authority. They should always be aspiring for excellence. These characteristics are annoying when you’re waiting on line somewhere, and they’re downright dangerous on the road, but they’re perfect for the lab.
None of this has anything to do with how a person scored on tests in school or how well they behaved. I don’t even remember what I learned in high school. But I do remember the values I acquired from Hashomer Hatzair in Belgium. The rejection of authority, the endlessness of discussions, to be wondering and thinking all the time.

In short – the Jewish genius.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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